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The Expat vs. The Traveler

Home sweet (former) home

I was standing in the small, crowded store, starting to get overly warm in my winter coat, waiting for my number to be called. When it was my turn to approach the counter, I said a silent prayer, “please speak English, please speak English,” and greeted the man with a polite “parlez-vous anglais?”

“A little,” he replied, which turned out to be more English than my French, but not nearly as much as almost everyone else I would meet during my time in Geneva. And so began yet another misadventure in Expat Living.

Living in another country is quite different from visiting it as a tourist, even if you “visit” it for an extended period of time. The main difference is, of course, that you’re living there, which means you actually have to attend to normal life responsibilities and necessities. While as a tourist you can spend the entirety of your days sightseeing (and effectively ignoring things like email and laundry), as an expat you have to work, go grocery shopping, pay bills, clean your house, and do all those other little things that eat up so much of our days.

Even tasks as seemingly simple as procuring Internet take on a new complexity when you’re a temporary resident in a foreign country – as I discovered that winter day, with my marginally-English-speaking store clerk. I needed a local cell phone and wireless Internet for my apartment. (This was six years ago, mind, so Wi-Fi was not nearly as prevalent – nor the technology as advanced – as it is today. The only way I could get Internet was by using one of those “old fashioned” USB devices that plugged into your laptop.) After managing to convey to the clerk what I wanted, he started the complicated process of setting up my account and phone number. At one point in this process, he put a small black box – which looked a lot like a cell phone – into my shopping bag. Finally, he pronounced that it was all taken care of, and I headed home feeling quite pleased with myself for successfully completing the task.

And then I got home, unpacked my shopping bag, and discovered that he had not given me a phone at all. The black box I had mistaken for the cell phone was actually the USB device for my Internet. I had not, after all, been entirely successful in crossing the language barrier to explain what I needed.

Worst of all, I had to go back to the store the next day and explain that I had been there to get a cell phone and had left without a cell phone. The clerk on my second visit spoke much better English, understood exactly what I had done, and clearly thought I was an idiot.

Not surprisingly, my time as an expat also gave me a much greater appreciation for being able to speak the native language.

With the basic requirements of life taking up so much time, I didn’t get to travel around Europe nearly as much as I would have liked. But ultimately, I found the real value of being an expat not to be the ability to travel widely, but simply the experience of living in another culture and environment, seeing how they do things differently, and getting myself way out of my comfort zone. And now when I visit Europe as a tourist, I have an insider’s edge – and a local cell phone.

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